Technology does widen the education divide. But not always in the way you expect

Register Debate Welcome to the latest Register Debate in which writers discuss technology topics, and you – the reader – choose the winning argument. The format is simple: we propose a motion, the arguments for the motion will run this Monday and Wednesday, and the arguments against on Tuesday and Thursday. During the week you can cast your vote on which side you support using the poll embedded below, choosing whether you’re in favour or against the motion. The final score will be announced on Friday, revealing whether the for or against argument was most popular.

It’s up to our writers to convince you to vote for their side.

This week’s motion is: Technology widens the education divide. And now today, arguing FOR the motion is MARIA RUSSELL, an early-years teacher in North London.

I teach at a school whose intake includes children from some very privileged areas, but which also covers some very poor pockets. Up until the pandemic, screen time grew and grew for children. Parents were clearly hiding their guilt about this. I remember a parent with a babe in arms holding an iPhone in front of the child’s face to calm them down during a parent-teacher meeting.

Pre-pandemic, once you turned a smart board on in the classroom, the children would be magnetically drawn to it. If you tried to turn it off or ration it there would be lots of moans. In the early-years classes, kids were traditionally allowed 15 minutes of screen time, and some would try and steal the iPad to stretch this out. We had to think very carefully about policies around technology.

When children started returning to school after lockdown, it was clear something had changed. They had been inside a lot. Some had been forced to work in cramped conditions, sometimes with multiple children all doing home learning and parents struggling to supervise them. You could tell many had experienced real chaos. Some had struggled with limited devices, and inadequate broadband, using Google Classroom on tiny screens, for example.

Now they craved completely different things – to climb and be physical. They really fell in love with real books again. They wanted to be read to, to role play, and do drama. That’s what they’d been starved of during lockdown.

It was clear some found technology quite intimidating, having been under pressure to use it for months. This was particularly true of children from English-as-an-alternative-language families. One said, “please don’t force me to speak to someone else on Zoom.”

Even in the older years, children were constantly asking, “when can I go outside again?” Technology had lost its association with “fun” and was less compelling.

I know from friends in the independent education sector that during lockdown their children were expected to get up, put a uniform on, and sit in front of the computer all day. This has often had a negative effect and, to be fair, the results aren’t better. But because parents were paying for it, that’s what parents expected.

The fact is children have to be independent learners. While we worked hard to ensure children had the technology to access school remotely, we also worked hard to ensure that this was complemented with printouts and other material. None of our early-years children were asked to be online all day. Those who attended online lessons have progressed academically, but there are clear gaps in terms of social and personal development.

So, I think the experience shows that children really need a broad curriculum and a range of experiences to thrive. An over-reliance on technology and remote learning can widen the education divide, even within the same institution, because children do not receive the full education experience they deserve. ®

Cast your vote below. We’ll close the poll on Thursday night and publish the final result on Friday. You can track the debate’s progress here.

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